This week, as I plan some fun for my characters, I’m visiting the old pleasure gardens of New York. While London’s Covent Garden had her ladies, as well as markets and a variety of entertainments, the pleasure gardens of 18th century Manhattan were private, walled-off parks one had to pay an admission fee to enter. That is, they were not public venues run by the city.
A quick note about green spaces in the 18th century: Manhattan provided “common” fields that were used for public markets, grazing livestock, and military parades. These spaces were not meant for relaxation or entertainment. Wealthy colonists wanted more from their city. Those who had business acumen rose to the challenge.
Our journey begins with the urban taverns in colonial America. These drinking establishments quickly became places to meet and be social. Many had adjacent gardens. “By attaching the earliest commercial pleasure gardens to pre-existing ‘open’ spas and taverns, New York City’s businessmen minimized their financial risks while also providing demanding clientele yet another reason to visit their establishment.”1
1740 — Spring Garden
Shortly after, in 1740, came the Spring Garden—so named for its seasonal operation—on what would now be Broadway, Fulton, Nassau, and Ann streets. Not only did it feature a tavern, but offered Georgian-style geometric gravel paths through cultivated shrubbery. If you could pay the fee, about two shillings, you were welcome.
The Spring Garden tavern hosted balls, magic shows, tumbling acts, feats of strength (including a Female Samson), and musical concerts. These entertainments, as well as the bucolic atmosphere, were a welcome relief and cultural respite to the citizens of Manhattan, especially as the city grew and became more crowded.
1750 — Mead Garden
Adam Vandenberg was a very successful promoter who owned and ran a tavern called the Drovers’ Inn, a pleasure garden called Mead Garden, and a horse race-course all situated on his farm, Church Farm, by the Hudson River. [Astor House would eventually be built on this site.] In March of 1743, there was a race between a mare named Ragged Kate belonging to Mr. Peter De Lancey, and a horse named Monk belonging to the Honorary William Montagu Esq, for £200.2
1765 — Ranelagh Garden
Ranelagh (pronounced “Ran-lee”) Garden, named for its London counterpart, occupied a wooded rise of ground just north of the northernmost city houses, not far from the smaller Vauxhall Garden. The two gardens directly competed in the form of fireworks exhibitions. Each offered limited engagements, bigger and bolder spectacles, and “never seen before” designs.
1767 — Vauxhall Garden
In 1767, the owner of the Queen’s Head Tavern on Pearl Street, known today as Fraunces Tavern for its most famous proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, brought Vauxhall Garden to Manhattan. It was originally located at Spring Hill, a villa on the Hudson River not far from Mead Garden. Like its namesake in London, Vauxhall offered a variety of entertainments: tea or coffee in the afternoon, summer concerts, shady trees and hedges, a variety of flowers, an outdoor wax museum, and at night, a fireworks show.
Vauxhall was considered a summer resort at the “most rural retreat any way near this city” (advertisement, New York Gazette, 1766), though in actuality, it was all of a mile from the tip of Manhattan.
It operated until the American Revolution when much of it was destroyed. When Fraunces sold it in 1773, before the War, it had “two large gardens, a house with four rooms per floor and twelve fireplaces, and a dining hall that was 56 feet long and 26 feet wide, with a kitchen below.”3
As the city expanded, many of these gardens were demolished for commercial buildings. Ranelagh became the New York Hospital with Royal Governor Tryon witnessing the laying of the corner-stone. Vauxhall became the Cupula Iron Furnace. Not that it was the end of New York’s pleasure gardens, but the industrial revolution and urban spread created a shift in how New Yorkers lived, worked, and relaxed.
New Yorkers still needed a green space to retreat from the city. Plans for developing Central Park began in 1840. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.
- Caldwell, Mark (2005). New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York City: Scribner.
- Bayles, W. Harrison (2020). Old Taverns of New York. Outlook Verlag.
- Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.